The Son – BFI London Film Festival 2022

Reviewer: Richard Maguire

Writers: Florian Zeller and Christopher Hampton

Director: Florian Zeller

Eschewing the tricks that can be seen in his previous film, 2020’s The Father, and in his latest stage play The Forest, Florian Zeller’s new film The Son is fairly straightforward. First seen on the stage, The Son tells the story of 17-year-old Nicholas battling a depression that his parents don’t understand. Playing Nicholas’s parents are Hugh Jackman and the effortlessly good Laura Dern, and the pair fits nicely into the Zeller’s vision of New York, full of luxury apartments and fancy office suites with views over Manhattan, and they look smart and sophisticated in their exquisitely designed clothes. These visual and expensive additions to the stage play run the risk of obscuring a moving examination of mental health.

Nicholas has been skiving off school for a month before his mother finds out. He’s clearly depressed and has fresh scars on his arm from where he has been cutting himself. For a change of scene, it’s decided that he go and live with his father, and his father’s new partner who has just given birth to a baby – Nicholas’s half-brother. But this move to Manhattan only seems to make Nicholas’s condition worse.

His father’s parenting skills are limited to asking about schoolwork. His stepmother Beth does most of the heavy lifting, getting Nicholas ready for school in the mornings and answering difficult questions about how she and his father met. Indeed Nicholas – and the film in general – blames his depression on the fact that his father left him and his mother for a younger woman. His father’s departure, Nicholas says, tore him into two. Not since Fatal Attraction has an extramarital affair caused so much damage.

Of course, the title of the film could also refer to Jackman’s character, Peter, who is, it turns out, his father’s son, despite his best efforts to be a different kind of father. Finding out that Nicholas is still cutting he simply shouts “I forbid this to happen again’ as if the law of the father is enough, But when we meet Peter’s father – a chilling cameo by Anthony Hopkins who won an Oscar for Zeller’s The Father – we can understand some of the problems Peter has in talking about his son’s mental health issues.

It takes a while to warm up to Jackman’s stilted delivery, not helped by the stagey script written by Zeller with his collaborator Christopher Hampton. But this awkward and aloof manner is the only way Peter knows how to be a man, and it’s interesting to see how Peter’s own sense of identity is undermined by the events happening in his family. Jackman appears to age in front of our eyes

Dern feels more human, especially when she senses that she could use her son’s illness as way to win Peter back. In a meeting she’s arranged with Peter, she orders martinis and talks of the past, gently and agonisingly flirting through her tears. Also impressive is Britain’s Vanessa Kirby as Peter’s new partner. Kirby plays a woman split between resentment that Nicholas has come to stay and the realisation that she may be the only one who can help him. Even though her role is not central, she’s the one the audience can most identify with.

As the confused teenager who feels isolated from everyone and who sticks up pictures of Arthur Rimbaud to his bedroom wall, Zen McGrath plays Nicholas’s disconnect with reality well, never fitting in anywhere. However, the melancholy that McGrath displays is so raw at times that it makes it hard to believe that Nicholas’s parents haven’t sought more urgent professional help. He says a few times that he isn’t made for this world and yet his parents do little. If Nicholas’s character had more light than shade then maybe his parents’ lack of action would be more credible.

There are a few other problems with the film, not least in the way the middle section is staged as a thriller with talk of knives hidden under beds and shotguns stowed behind washing machines. In a story about mental illness these hints that The Son will play out like a Gothic horror complete with a ‘madman’ wielding blades over a new-born baby in the box room do seem a little cheap.

Although Zeller throws in a narrative trick right at the end, The Son is not as inventive as The Father. Also maintaining that the divorce has triggered Nicholas’s depression closes down any other possible causes. Mental health problems are affecting many young people today; it’s doubtful that this film will be a help to them.

The Son is screening at this year’s BFI London Film Festival 2022

The Reviews Hub Score

The sins of the father.

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The Reviews Hub Film Team is under the editorship of Maryam Philpott.

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